In January 1942, fighting between the invading Japanese and the America/Philippine Army was raging. Because of the decision made in 1922 by America to limit their growth of military infrastructure in the Pacific, the Allied forces were playing a game of catch up when the Japanese launched their surprise attacks.
In 1921-22, the United States was trying to slow the growth of all of the world’s navies and proposed a holiday from building battleships at the Washington Naval Treat meetings. One of the little remembered consequences for that treaty was that Japan insisted on the limitations on growth of land facilities in the Pacific. Japan was being limited to the number of tons they could build in ship and used the development of bases and infrastructure as a bargaining chip at the conference. While they were limited to a 5/5/3 ratio of ship tonnage, the limitation on the rest of the world on reinforcing existing or future island bases around the Pacific region ended up having far reaching consequences.
The American presence in the Philippines was a holdover to the turn of the 20th century. America was still an occupying force there from the days of the Spanish American war. While liberation was only scheduled for a few years away form 1942, the decision to arm the Philippines and bulk up the American army presence there came too late. The Japanese had already built up combat forces and were better prepared for the battle to come.
The American and Philippine forces in 1941 were pitifully under-armed. Using rifles that were largely left over from the end of the First World War, units often had to share one rifle among a number of troops. Ammunition was scarce as well and squad level weapons were in short supply. Food and other supplies were also critically short and by January, the entire army of the Philippines was placed on half rations.
But the brave men of the combined forces fought delaying tactics all up and down the chain of islands. What was supposed to be a few week operation for the Japanese occupiers looked like it would stretch into months. Those precious months would be needed to slow the growth of the spread to places like Australia. As other areas fell quickly to the Japs, the Philippines hung on with a bold tenacity.
So it wasn’t a shock that Japan would resort to terror and propaganda to try and influence the Filipinos. The terror came from announcements that anyone caught hurting or killing the invaders would be killed. Plus, for every dead soldier, ten or more of the village leaders would be rounded up and killed.
The propaganda came in the form of leaflets and other sources to influence the defenders.
When the Japanese took over Manila, they allowed the local Tribune Newspaper to continue publishing.
Of course, it would be under close Japanese control. On January 22nd, 1942, an article on the front page was part of that propaganda. It was allegedly written by an America captive named David T. Kirk. Lieutenant US Army. Here is the letter:
U.S. Army Officer, Prisoner, Wants Fighting Here Stopped
Says It’s Useless To Fight Superior Japanese Force
(Note. The following statement was written by Lt. David M. Kirk, Infantry, U. S. Army, and handed over to the Japanese military authorities for whatever use they may see fit to make of it. Lt. Kirk according to the authorities, was captured near Cabanatuan, Nueva Ecija recently and was brought to Manila. In this statement, published without comment, Lt. Kirk expresses his own personal views, according to the military authorities. Lt. Kirk, a native of Iowa, arrived in the Philippines on Sept. 26, 1941.)
To my fellow soldiers in the Philippines and America:
I am Lt. David M. Kirk of the United States Army, now a captive of the Japanese armed forces in the Philippines. I have a message for you that may mean the difference between life and death, so listen carefully. First, I want all of you to know that I have been treated fairly by my captors according to the rules of war.
In fact, I eat the same food afforded their own soldiers and sleep in quarters as good if not better. This same decent treatment is given to the other American soldiers of all ranks taken captive.
To you soldiers still fighting the hopeless battle here in the Philippines let me tell you that I have seen much of the Japanese Army in the past few weeks and cannot help but admire its soldierly qualities, it’s fighting spirit, it’s will to win, its well-equipped orderly ranks of all branches, of its service. Why should you sacrifice yourselves to its tremendous numbers by continuing to fight, outnumbered, outgunned, outgeneraled and with no hope of succor in this land so far from our native soil? I hear you say “Let us be manly, let us die a soldier’s death killing as many of the enemy as possible before we inevitably die.” Brave words. Brave spirit. But so useless, so misplaced. Why waste American blood on Philippine soil?
You have done all that can be expected of flesh and blood. Now accept the inevitable and surrender to a far superior force. We are not Spartans at Thermopylae with our homes to defend. We are soldiers far from home and family fighting for a colonial aggrandizement which is against the wishes of the majority of Americans.
An American Army can never maintain itself in the Philippines against an unfriendly Japan. The proof of that was all, too evident in the battle of the past few weeks. Soon you will be out of food, out of ammunition and no more will be coming across the Pacific now dominated by the Japanese Navy.
I say, place your trust in the hands of the Japanese and surrender. They are not the people our propagandists told us they were. They are a proud and honorable race who will treat their prisoners fairly and repatriate us as soon as peace comes.
To my family and friends in America, let me plea for peace with Japan. They have a tremendous well-trained army and navy. We are unprepared, without real headers, without a cause to fight for. We soldiers are aware that we are but tools of death in a dream of world domination that can never become a reality. Your lately-awakened patriotism can only cause our deaths and your bereavement.
Why fight to impose an outmoded and disproven democracy on the rest of the world? Why not become wiser and join ourselves to the forces of the future that are arising? Then, in peace, we can play our ordained part. Now, in war, we can only be puppets dancing a tune of death to the music of “Rule Britannia”.
Let the Philippines be dominated by the Japanese. What ties has America other than to protect the investments of a few capitalists? The Japanese are far closer to the Philippines geographically and economically and are better fitted to make this land bloom as we have never done.
The Filipinos themselves are not adverse to a change of masters. I have seen them with my own eyes gaily welcoming the new conquerors to each town and barrio. Worse than that, I saw the Filipino soldiers under my command desert me on the line of battle and leave me alone to fight. Why should more American blood be spilt in defense of such an alien people?
These words are prophetic, “Let America find her new leaders and we will find a new peace that will bring a world prosperity never before dreamed”.
Eventually, the Americans and Philippine Army would run out of food, resources and energy. What happened next will always remain as one of the greatest war crimes in history – The Bataan Death March.
So, what became of the Lieutenant?
Nothing could be found of in the lists of dead and surrendered.
But the camp that he was probably captured at before he supposedly wrote the letter to the Manila paper was turned into the infamous Cabanatuan POW Camp. All of the remaining prisoners that had been held in Manila were eventually transferred there.
Cabanatuan POW Camp was located four miles southwest of Cabanatuan in Nueva Ecija Province in Luzon in the Philippines.
Built prewar by the American colonial administration as a Department of Agriculture station. Later used as a training camp for the Philippine Army 91st Division. On November 14, 1941 Cabanatuan was mobilized as a military camp. Based on his letter, Kirk was probably one of the Americans sent there to help train the Filipinos. More than likely Lt. Kirk was captured trying to make his way to Bataan.
After the Japanese occupation in 1942, the training camp was converted by the Imperial Japanese Army into the Cabanatuan POW Camp. The rectangular camp spanned roughly 25 acres and was 800 yards deep by 600 yards wide, divided by a road in the center. The camp consisted of a barracks for Japanese guards, barracks for prisoners, a hospital and water tower enclosed by barbed wire with guard towers.
At its height, 8,000 prisoners were detained at this location including thousands of American POWs from the US Army (USA), US Navy (USN) and US Marine Corps (USMC) who had survived the Bataan Death March and had been temporary internment at Camp O’Donnel. The prisoners also included some civilians including one British and one Norwegian citizen. Thousands of United States soldiers, sailors, Marines, and civilians were taken prisoners of war (POW) by the Japanese in the Philippine Islands between 7 December 1941 and 8 May 1942.
How were they really treated?
The saga of the battle for the Philippines and the horrible treatment the survivors received in Japanese POW camps is the subject of numerous books and articles, but there are few resources that articulate graves registration operations, especially those focused on recovering and identifying the remains of U.S. servicemen who perished at the Cabanatuan Prisoner of War Camps. The details concerning the circumstances under which U.S. prisoners held at Cabanatuan lived and died were difficult and complicated, as were the attempts to disinter and identify their remains after the war’s end. As a result of these complications, when the Cabanatuan Project ended in 1951, 1,007 service members and civilians remained unidentified from among the 2,764 burials at the Camps.
When Filipino and American Military Forces surrendered on the Bataan Peninsula on 8 April 1942, they had been fighting a defensive retreat across the Philippine Island of Luzon. For over four months they held off the advancing Japanese troops all the while suffering from a lack of food, medicine, ammunition, and hope. On 1 January 1942, all Filipino and American forces had been placed on half rations, and the amount of rationed food only decreased as time passed. Because of the poor quality of their diet, many suffered from night blindness and a variety of jungle illnesses, including malaria, dengue, dysentery, and hookworm. It has been estimated that over seventy percent of the men on Bataan suffered from malaria due to the lack of adequate medical supplies to treat them.
Compounding the food and medical issues, the Japanese seriously underestimated the number of prisoners they would encounter on Bataan. Almost 75,000 (65,000 Filipino and 10,000 American) surrendered. The Japanese also expected the men to be in good physical condition—not sick and starved. However, Japanese interest lay in what was beyond Bataan—Corregidor
Eventually, the Americans and allies would return. This POW Camp detained prisoners until liberated during the night of January 30, 1945. The remains of too many were never recovered.
“The Japanese committed terrible war crimes in the Philippines from the very onset of the War, most notably the Bataan Death March (March 1942). The treatment of American POWs and Filipino soldiers as well as American civilian internees has been widely reported. The American internees were the largest number of American civilians held by any Axis power. There were reports of unbelievable cruelty and near the end of the War, the Japanese killed a group of American POWs on Palawan by burning them to death. The primary problem was food. As the War went against the Japanese, food became a major problem both on the Home Islands and Japanese field armies. Japanese Army regulations mandated that the Imperial soldiers had the first priority for available food stocks, then the local population, and finally the POWs and civilian internees.
“If the Japanese had managed the situation reasonably, there should have been sufficient food throughout Southeast Asia. Unfortunately they did not manage the food situation reasonably and terrible famines occurred in the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia), Vietnam, and other areas. These were food exporting areas before the War. The situation was not as bad in the Philippines, but by 1944 the POWs and internees were beginning to starve. And unlike the Germans, the Japanese did not allow Red Cross parcels through to the POWs and internees.
“Filipino civilians had better access to food but were targets of the most savage atrocities imaginable. The situation escalated when President Roosevelt acceded to General MacArthur’s demand that after the Marianas, the next target would be the Philippines and not Formosa (Taiwan) (July 1944). Formosa actually made more strategic sense. The decision saved the lives of many POWs and internees hovering near death by starvation, but it put the Filipino people in a war zone and the Japanese turned very vindictive knowing that most Filipinos were strongly pro-American.
“The Filipinos no doubt were delighted when the Americans began landing on Leyte (October 1944), but few Filipinos or Americans for that matter understood the barbarity that the Japanese would unleash on the Filipino people. Japanese propaganda had little impact on the Filipinos. Unlike Dutch, the Americans were in the process of granting independence when the Japanese invaded. And Japanese behavior during the occupation only further alienated the Filipino people. This was especially the case of the people of Manila where the Imperial Marines and others in the Manila garrison refused to surrender and decided to take every civilian in their grasp with them, often after raping the women.”
Manila suffered greatly during the three years of the enemy’s occupation. Japanese forces looted food supplies and department stores, stole farm equipment and left fields to rot. Store shelves sat empty and basic supplies like medicine vanished. Manila’s economy collapsed, and the social fabric began to unravel. An army of beggars flooded the streets while others resorted to thievery, including plundering graves in search of jewelry, dentures, eyeglasses and even clothing, anything that could be bartered or sold to buy a fistful of rice. Families unable to care for children went so far as to abandon them to orphanages or even sell them. Starvation meanwhile ran rampant, claiming as many as 500 souls a day. Marcial Lichauco, a Manila attorney whose diary captured the horror many endured, described it best in a December 1944 entry. “Today we are living under conditions in which only the fittest among us can hope to survive.”
American families, locked up behind the gates of the University of Santo Tomas and other Manila-area internment camps, suffered equally. The earlier ingenuity that internees had shown in transforming this campus into a small city, faded as the daily caloric intake plummeted and starvation took hold. A medical survey conducted in January 1945 revealed that the average male internee lost 51 pounds; the average female 32. To survive desperate internees ate dogs, cats, pigeons, and even rats, which fetched as much as eight pesos each on the camp’s black market. “I was worried about a lump in my stomach,” internee Louise Goldthorpe wrote in an entry. “Then I found it was my backbone.” By January 1945, the nearly 3,700 internees at Santo Tomas starved to death at the rate of 3-4 a day. “We survived on hope,” recalled one internee, “hope that the American forces would arrive.”